The Obama Enigma

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

THE NATIONAL Journal magazine recently ranked Barack Obama as the most liberal senator in 2007 -- an assessment that is subject to legitimate quibbling but will no doubt be featured by Republicans if Mr. Obama wins the Democratic nomination for president. Democratic voters in a Pew Research Center poll last month put Mr. Obama to their left ideologically, Hillary Rodham Clinton to their right. Are these analyses accurate? When the Illinois Democrat talks about bringing together red and blue America, does he mean that he will persuade the red (Republican) part to come around to blue (Democratic) policies -- or does he mean that he will forge a new, centrist answer that will bridge the red-blue divide? Is he a liberal at heart who tacks occasionally to the center or more of a centrist capable of suppressing leftist instincts when political circumstances demand?

It's telling, at this relatively late stage in the nominating process, that the answers are not clear -- at least not to us. Granted, broad terms such as "liberal" or "conservative" can be more misleading than informative. Mr. Obama himself disparages such labeling as a simplistic enterprise, writing to the liberal Web site Daily Kos that "the whole 'centrist' versus 'liberal' labels that continue to characterize the debate within the Democratic Party misses the mark." University of Chicago law professor Cass R. Sunstein, an informal adviser to Mr. Obama, places the candidate not at a particular spot along the ideological continuum but as a "visionary minimalist," willing "to think big and to endorse significant departures from the status quo -- but [preferring] to do so after accommodating, learning from, and bringing on board a variety of different perspectives."

Yes, but where is Mr. Obama most comfortable himself? Where would he strive to take the country? It is possible to draw conflicting lessons from his record. As New York Times columnist David Brooks has pointed out, Mr. Obama was not part of the bipartisan Gang of 14 that tried to avert a showdown on judicial filibusters; he was not among the 68 senators voting for a bipartisan agreement on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act; he dissented from the part of the bipartisan immigration deal that displeased unions. His campaign platform is orthodox liberal Democratic fare. So is Mr. Obama a standard liberal clad in the soothing language of inclusiveness?

Perhaps, but one could read the record and arrive at a different conclusion. Mr. Obama not only declined to filibuster Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.; he was initially inclined to vote for him, according to The Post's Perry Bacon Jr. Even in the heat of a primary campaign, he has shown some brief glimmers of divergence from the party line: He dared to mention the notion of "merit pay" in an appearance before the teachers union, and he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board that, although he is a "skeptic" about school vouchers, "I will not allow my predispositions to stand in the way of making sure that our kids can learn" if research shows that they work. His book "The Audacity of Hope" is laced with hints of a more complex Obama than the campaign trail version -- more conflicted, for instance, about the benefits of free trade than the campaign trail's NAFTA-basher. "In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean," Larissa McFarquhar wrote in the New Yorker last year.

The closing weeks of a primary campaign aren't especially conducive to thoughtful discussions of political philosophy. But if not now, when? Mr. Obama's rhetoric about bridging partisan differences has been inspiring, his personal story is moving and his qualities of leadership are undoubted. But do voters understand where, exactly, he would like to lead them?


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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